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The Science behind Centuries of Traditional Medicines

For centuries, herbal remedies and plant-based medicines have been an essential component of healing traditions in many cultures, but hundreds of these substances have yet to be investigated scientifically. In Chemistry Prof. Miriam Rossi’s lab, two senior chemistry majors are investigating the structure and bioactivity of several plant-derived compounds to assess their antioxidant and anticancer properties.

Senior chemistry major Kelly Wen with a sample of dried goji berries

Growing up in Staten Island, Kelly Wen ’18 was routinely administered herbal remedies by her Chinese immigrant parents. “You’ve got a headache? Brew some goji berry soup, and the headache miraculously goes away,” says Wen. “Is that a placebo effect, or are there actually compounds in these berries that contribute to health and wellness?”

That’s one of the questions Wen chose to investigate for her senior thesis in chemistry under the direction of Prof. Rossi. She’s looking at specific compounds in several plants widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)—Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense (goji berry) and Cnidium monnieri (Monnier’s snowparsley).

The goji berry is purported to improve eyesight, eliminate toxins from the body, and increase overall health and longevity. Monnier’s snowparsley is used to improve liver function, cure skin ailments, and as an aphrodisiac. “But little scientific information has been brought up to support these claims,” says Wen. “I want to find out whether the bioactive ingredients in these plant actually contribute to these physiological benefits.”

Wen is analyzing the chemical composition and structure of three constituents: osthole found in the seeds of Cnidium, and β-ionone and emodin found in the goji berry. She’s using Single-crystal X-ray diffraction and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to determine the structures of these constituents and then cyclic ring-disk voltammetry to identify antioxidant activity and to map superoxide levels.

Wen with Prof. Rossi in the lab

“What we’re finding so far is that there definitely is a high antioxidant content in these constituents,” says Wen. “Antioxidants are important because they inhibit the number of free superoxide radicals in your system.”

The first person in her family to go to college, Wen applied to Vassar through QuestBridge, a program that connects high achieving, low-income students with top colleges and universities. “I knew I wanted to study science, but I definitely wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I came in,” she says. “Most of the other schools I applied to wanted you to narrow your path and stick to science. Even though I have taken a lot of science classes, I’ve also taken a lot of art classes. I’m getting a correlate in studio art. And I learned to swim last semester! And I got to go JYA to London! I don’t think I would have had these opportunities anywhere except Vassar.”

Aron Sulovari ’18 in front of the single crystal X-ray diffractometer, a piece of equipment used to determine molecular structure

Wen’s fellow chemistry major, Aron Sulovari ’18, is investigating a compound called hispolon that is found in several species of East Asian mushrooms.

Estimates of the number of species of fungi in the world vary wildly—from 15,000 to 5.1 million! We may not know how many species there are, but scientists seem to agree that mushrooms are a huge untapped source of potential pharmaceuticals.

“Hispolon is interesting because it is structurally very similar to curcumin,” Sulovari says. Curcumin, a compound found in the spice turmeric, has long been used in South Asian countries as a remedy for numerous ailments. Over the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of interest in curcumin with numerous studies on its bioactivity—including a study by Prof. Rossi et al. published in Inorganic Chemistry.

According to Sulovari, the problems researchers have been running into with curcumin are related to its solubility and bioavailability. “This is where hispolon may have an advantage because it’s more soluble than curcumin,” says Sulovari. “We won’t be able to test its bioactivity until the next phase of the research. What we’re doing now is creating complexes by binding hispolon with various metals to enhance its anticancer potential, and then verifying the structures of these complexes using the single crystal X-ray diffractometer.”

A sample of hispolon, a compound found in several species of East Asian mushrooms

The hispolon project in Prof. Rossi’s lab was started last year by Carmen Kloer ’17 as her senior thesis project and will likely be carried further by another senior chemistry major next year. “This is just the beginning of the pre-clinical development phase,” says Sulovari, “but it’s super cool to be involved in something that could someday become a viable treatment option.”

Sulovari has been interested in science as long as he can remember and expects to begin medical school next fall. He attended a special magnet school in high school where he actually majored in medicine—“We had majors in high school!” But he says that what drew him to Vassar was the open curriculum. “Obviously, you have to fulfill your major requirements, but you also have the opportunity to enrich yourself by exploring other interests. I’ve taken geography classes and economics classes, and all those courses have informed my humanistic world view.”

Sulovari’s other major commitment is to rowing. “I didn’t row in high school. During orientation, I heard the rowing team tabling at the student orgs fair, and I thought, ‘This sounds pretty cool.’ And now, three and a half years later, I’m the senior captain.”